Back To The Top
The Legacy of Aretha Franklin

-Lauren Brown, Roots N Blues Intern

Last week, we lost an artist whose contributions to music are truly immeasurable. Aretha Franklin’s voice is one that spans for generations — one that is unmistakable, sturdy and carries an admirable sense of pride.

Franklin was birth in Memphis in 1942, and soon after her family relocated to Detroit where she would spend her childhood. Her father was a pastor who had many of his sermons recorded by Chess Records; this provided her the opportunity to first gain recognition by performing with him around the country. Gospel undoubtedly formed Aretha’s roots, and by the time she was 14, she had released her first record, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin.

Franklin crossed from Gospel into secular music at the age of 18 when she moved away from home and signed with Columbia Records. Her relationship with Columbia lasted only six years but resulted in a total of nine albums with producer John Hammond. Her career didn’t flourish as it should have with the pop-oriented company, which Hammond later explained: “I cherish the albums we made together, but Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.” Atlantic Records became the next label to sign Franklin and provided her with greater freedom to mold her musical identity, where her gospel roots and R&B and soul influences came into light; she now had a more distinct direction as an artist.

Aretha Franklin’s first record with Atlantic was “I Never Loved a Man,” the first track being her iconic single, “Respect.” The single is an Otis Redding cover which she gave a completely new meaning. It was an anthem then and still is now; it was used in both the Civil Right’s Movement and the Women’s Movement. The almost-responsorial tune that Franklin delivered is emblematic of the revolution that she began.

Although no one can deny his iconic status, Redding’s version wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking. The lyrics uttered by a man calling for respect didn’t gain anything near the notability that they would once the roles were reversed. Vox Magazine elaborated on this, saying, “the difference in the two versions is the difference between ‘give me what I want’ and ‘pay me what you owe me.’”

Franklin went on to write about the single in her autobiography, telling us that “it was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” she said. “Respect” landed her her first two Grammy’s and was amongst several other singles that were, and still are, empowering to women everywhere like, “A Natural Woman,” ”Think” and “Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves.”

Following the release of her first album with Atlantic, Aretha Franklin’s career began to skyrocket. Franklin produced 10 top-ten hits within the first year and a half with her new label, with more artistic momentum and consistency than many of her peers. She worked with a wide-range of material throughout this stage of her career, displaying the unique ability to cover any artists work from varying genres and make them her own.

After the cessation of her contract with Atlantic, she signed to Arista records, where she would spend the longest period of her career (lasting until 2003).  During this time Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and rightfully so as the “Queen of Soul.” She eventually left following the release of her album “So Damn Happy” and went on to start her own record label, Aretha’s Records, a few years following.  

In 2014, Franklin was to sign with RCA Records where she would release “ARETHA FRANKLIN SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS,” with the intention to carry on tunes by other female artists which she thought might be lost by future generations. The album featured a cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” which became her 100th single landing on the R&B charts, making her the fourth artist and first woman ever to do so.

Her career was nothing short of awarded; over the span of her career Franklin would go on to amass 44 Grammy nominations and 18 Grammy wins, including the Grammy Legend Award in 1991 as well as the highest honor awarded to civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The music of Aretha Franklin has touched all of our lives, and influenced virtually every artist; her career has created a bridge that allows us to connect with times and artists that have long gone. It was last week that Aretha Franklin lost her battle with pancreatic cancer, but her legacy will continue for generations and generations to come.

photo via BBC